Just before the quarantine started. I was working on a student production: Clowns perform John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. It's a theatre laboratory course so our brief includes deconstructing and responding to the original text.
The group were all on board with including a feminist point of view. They had recently created a scene to deal with the role of women in their previous module's production of Threepenny Opera. John Ford actually writes well for women - the female characters here are spirited, feisty and wry, but the idea of the clowns coming out saying 'We have a problem with the title!' was in the forefront of my mind.
I developed a process for approaching classical texts to be played by clowns - in previous years, we worked with The Revengers Tragedy. One year we used Dark Clown concept: the audience entered a rehabilitation centre for clowns. The concept being sweet clowns are being punished by being forced to present a vicious and violent play, so that they can better fit in to society. Towards the end there was an alarm and an announcement - the clowns had failed at their task and had to depart as their identifying number was called - I gave the direction, 'You are leaving to your death. The prop you are holding now will be the instrument of your death.' One character left with a haunted face, holding a cucumber before him ...
Another year, an organisation of clowns were attempting to understand the 'sad normals' (regular people). The production was divided into chapters: The clowns try to understand Power. The clowns try to understand Flawed Humanity. The clowns try to understand Grief. The clowns try to understand The Plot ... etc.
I am always inspired by the underdog and for me clowning is a way to present neglected points of view. With the Revengers Tragedy, we included Vindici's dead girlfriend Gloriana as a cast role. After the scene where Vindice dresses Gloriana up to trick and punish the Duke, poor Gloriana, decked in a necklace of 'Magic Tree' car deodorisers (remember the room for the sin of sloth in the film SEVEN) broken-heartedly mourns to Vindice 'You used me!' - all the more poignant by being played with wonderful sensitivity and vulnerability by a very tall male student.
I start the approach to work on the devising adaptation by making a circle of chairs. Everyone enters clown state. This is a meeting of the Clown Council and they are instructed to stand when they feel the urge to speak about the Themes of the play. I act as scribe to capture what the clowns say.
Later, back in 'sad normal' state, we discuss and find common ground.
Another process consists of pairing students up randomly and assigning each pair a theme. I ask them to put their clown brains and hearts to this task - to think of metaphors and clown-logic ideas, and songs for possible inclusion.
For example, one student, working on the theme of Vows came up with the idea of a ring. Two Clowns wearing a rubber ring in various unwieldy ways, hampering their joy and freedom. Another pair of clowns would have costumed themselves as a pantomime horse. The clown playing Annabel would have worn a bridle. The combined metaphors and prop ideas birthed this approach and the whole would have come together something like this:
The clowns found a script in the back of a Ford Fiesta.
They were really impressed that,
apart from revolutionising the automotive industry (yay horsepower),
Ford had found the time to also write a play
(and make some fine Western movies, too, apparently).
The clowns felt that their presentation of ''Tis Pity She's a Horse' (sic) would be a great opportunity to show that clowns can do high-brow material.
Well some of them. A couple of them just welcomed an opportunity to dress as cowboys.
Or as Death (from The Seventh Seal).
This famous tale of incestuous love would have begun
with a smooth, lively rendering of Sly and the Family Stone's 'It's a Family Affair'.
The suitors would have competed in a Derby for the hand of Annabella.
Soranzo would have disqualified Grimaldi for unspecified reasons and
Bergetto's horse would have been shot, and sadly not responded to any of the normal methods of resuscitation.
Hippolyta would have made a splendid entrance with
terrifying black-bin-bag wings and spoken of her betrayal with Valkyrie-like rage.
There was going to be a Punishment Rabbit (don't ask), and a Public Service Announcement
about how the stork arrives when he sees True Love.
There would have been a special appearance by the newly conceived
Clown of Shame:
Whose tale more shameful than mine,
whose lot more dire?
My motheraunt and uncledad
Did beget me, commingled in one bed,
The fruit of sibling loins!
Monstrous progeny made in equal parts
of sublimest love and darkest sin.
Ah me! ah woe! oh misery!
And my life short and brutish in the dark
To be murdered unclean and unborn
by my uncledad’s blade.
Was ever nephewson afflicted thus!
Annbella, Putana and Hippolita would have risen up from their various deaths to
address their dead beloveds (using text from Oscar Wilde’s Salome):
Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. There was a bitter taste on thy lips.
It would have been edgy, elevated and stupid - with touches of pathos and just a little feminist rage. Due to COVID-19, the production only exists now in the imagination.